It’s funny how the language we use eventually influences the way we think and act. Not funny in the comic sense, but more in the “how-did-I-wind-up-with-these-odd-conclusions?” sort of way. I’ve had the experience before; maybe you have too. Does it matter? Here’s just one example of language creating its own strange reality and interfering with rational conversations about some pretty important matters.
Greg brought this to mind when he reflected on what Mickey Kaus thinks of Starbucks’ coffee–cup politicking. Kaus decries the corporate creepiness of asking employees to write a political message on coffee cups. Not just creepiness, mind you, but corporate creepiness.
On a closely related note, a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judge believes there is no constitutional violation when the federal government requires a construction company to pay for medical procedures that violate religious tenets. What . . . you don’t see how these are related? Hmmm. Let’s try another one.
We have recently debated what the corporate tax rate ought to be. Some say it is so high it encourages companies to relocate overseas. Some say it is not high enough, and that corporations ought to underwrite even more of our government’s financial obligations. There. That ought to make things more than clear, yes?
Well, no, of course it doesn’t. That’s because the common thread running through these three anecdotes is a concept so seemingly unremarkable that we slide right by it without thought. And yet those situations are entirely unintelligible without it. That concept is the belief that there is such a thing as a corporation. A belief, it turns out, that is entirely mistaken. That’s right Virginia, there’s no such thing as a corporation.
Now, lest I be mistaken, I want to be clear that what I mean is that there is no such “thing” as a corporation. See the point? You don’t have lunch with a corporation, nor even talk with one. Corporations don’t own anything, don’t make or spend wealth, don’t help or hurt. In fact, they don’t actually do anything. All of those things are reserved to people.
A “corporation” is nothing more than a collection of laws that govern the relationship between certain people, whether internally (between shareholders and employees), or externally (between the people we describe as a “corporation” and the rest of the world). It’s nothing more than the label we give to a type of relationship (kind of like calling a certain grouping of relationships a “family”). A corporation is, in the eyes of the law, naught but a legal fiction. So when we refer to a corporation as a thing, something separate and apart from the people it describes, we are just pretending. It’s make-believe. There actually is a man behind that curtain to whom we must pay attention.
Back to my original premise – how does this influence how we think and act? Well, sometimes the make-believe overtakes our reason. Let’s look at those three anecdotes again, this time with the understanding that “corporation” is just how we refer to a certain group of people.
We’ll start with that 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judge. The people who own the construction company believe the federal law requiring them to provide insurance for certain controversial medical procedures violates their religious beliefs. So they filed a lawsuit asking the court to protect their right to the freedom of religion. One of the three judges hearing the case thought they were entitled to no such protection. Why? Here’s what he said:
“Although the Kortes contend that complying with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandate violates their religious liberties, they are removed by multiple steps from the contraceptive services to which they object. First, it is the corporation rather than the Kortes individually which [sic] will pay for the insurance coverage. The corporate form may not be dispositive of the claims raised in this litigation, but neither is it meaningless: it does separate the Kortes, in some real measure, from the actions of their company.” (Emphasis supplied)
The Kortes are separable from the actions of the construction company they own? I’d love to see how that works. I want to see the company buy some building supplies without the Kortes or their employees taking any action. Or perhaps we could watch the buildings go up without their involvement. And I bet the employees would be anxious for the judge’s assurance that paychecks just write themselves. The judge didn’t elaborate, however, on how a company acts separately from the constituent members of that type of relationship. Nor could he. Because they can’t. And they can’t because there is no such “thing” as a corporation. Well, maybe that’s why he didn’t.
Fortunately, there were two other judges on the Korte panel who understood that corporations aren’t corporeal, they have no consciousness, and they are incapable of any action whatsoever. So, for now at least, the Kortes’ religious freedom is intact.
But think on that for a minute. A judge one step below the United States Supreme Court is basing his work on make-believe. The long habit of talking about corporations as if they are somehow corporeal beings led him deep into error. And he would have, if he could have, turned that error into a legal requirement capable of depriving people of their constitutionally-protected rights. All because he couldn’t put aside a lifetime’s habit of talking about a fictional thing as if it was real.
Is one judge mired in make-believe an anomaly? Let’s look at that corporate tax debate; it might be instructive.
Everybody gets taxed, so why not corporations, right? Shouldn’t they pay their fair share? Well sure, if a corporation is a somebody. But as we’ve already seen, it’s nothing more than a mix of relationships amongst a defined group of people. When we levy a “corporate” tax we are taxing individuals – namely that group of people known as “shareholders.” And then we tax that same money again when we call it “dividends” instead of “income.” But we’re taxing the same money and the same people; we’re just giving the taxes different names so the trick isn’t quite so obvious.
It would be as if Congress decided to adopt a “family” tax. You’re not being taxed twice, your friendly neighborhood IRS agent might say – the family pays the “family income tax,” and you only pay the individual income tax. See? Two different entities, two different taxes. You get taxed only once. “But the family is not an entity separate from me,” you might object, “we are one!” “You don’t understand,” the IRS agent deprecatingly smiles, “let me tell you about the corporate tax . . . .”
Now, maybe you don’t object to being taxed twice and you think the corporate tax (or, possibly, a “family” tax) is good public policy. That, however, is not the debate we are having. The debate assumes the existence of a separate entity with the ability to earn income, own property, and spend its resources. That is to say, the foundation of the Congressional debate is a myth. You could call the “corporate tax” the “unicorn tax” without losing one iota of descriptive accuracy. Either way, Congress would be taxing a fiction and asking people to pick up the bill.
Alright, so it’s not just a judge on a federal court, it’s also the members of Congress who have been carried away by their imaginations. The rest of us wouldn’t be taken in by that silliness. Back to you Mickey Kaus.
Why is there “corporate” creepiness in asking Starbucks employees to write “Come Together” on coffee cups? Presumably, Kaus wouldn’t have a problem if you asked your friend to do such a thing, so it’s not the phrase itself that bothers him (although it should). I think Kaus’ discomfort is a species of the “uncanny valley” effect (the freaky feeling we get when a robot looks just a little too human). He assumes that a corporation is a soulless entity, so it’s just plain weird when it starts acting as if it had one. Yes, that would be weird. But only if corporations are actual entities to begin with. As luck would have it, they’re not.
We’re fortunate that it’s just judges and congressmen and prominent opinion-makers that make that kind of mistake, right? Yeah. If the rest of us weren’t making the same error, don’t you think there would be an outcry? Or at least an energetic mumbling?
So. Does this matter? This is just one example of letting language create its own reality, and look what it has done. We’ve created tax policy based on a fantasy, we’ve been spooked by a figment of our imagination, and because the insurance mandate has not come before the Supreme Court, a fiction of our own making may yet cost us our constitutionally-protected freedom of religion.
You tell me if it matters. No, really. There’s a spot for leaving comments just below this. I’m interested in your thoughts.